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Giving Up Christmas as a Convert to Judaism

I don’t feel nostalgic about Christmas—I’ve discovered the magic of Hanukkah

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When people hear that I converted to Judaism, the first question they ask is, “Don’t you miss Christmas?”

When I reply that I don’t, they usually look at me in disbelief. “Really? How could you not miss Christmas?”

The short answer is that I kept the things I liked about Christmas—baking special cookies, gathering with the family, lighting candles—and made them part of my Hanukkah celebration. I do have warm memories of Christmas as a child, but once the make-believe of childhood had vanished, Christmas left me with an emotional emptiness that I only recognized as a spiritual void once I was living a Jewish life. In fact, my fondest memory of Christmas is of the first one I did not celebrate.

***

I grew up in a Bavarian village in Germany where Christmas is preceded by four weeks of Advent. In our village, St. Nikolaus was celebrated on Dec. 6. On the night before, der Nikolaus would walk the streets, either in my imagination or for real (a neighbor dressed up in a red suit and white beard), with a burlap bag bulging with treats slung over his shoulder—not unlike Americans’ vision of Santa Claus. He would be trailed by Knecht Ruprecht, his evil twin, who would beat his chain against the pavement so its rattle would send shivers through the kids lying in wait. My siblings and I never fell victim to Knecht Ruprecht, but tales of near whippings and being chased down a dark street whispered among the village kids were enough to make him seem real.

Since St. Nick had come on the 6th, leaving chocolate and Lebkuchen (gingerbread)—and sometimes an onion for bad behavior—in our red plastic boots lined up on the doormat, das Christkind, the Christ child, came on Christmas Eve. After St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht had judged us on good and bad behavior, it was the Christkind’s privilege to deliver the gifts to celebrate his own birthday. I imagined him with golden locks, wearing a gauzy blue gown, flying about on glittery wings, and plopping gifts under trees with the wave of a chubby hand. Once the Christkind had deposited the gifts, he would wind up the golden music bell that hung in the living room window. We three children would wait with our grandmother in the room my brother and I shared. Huddled in the lower bunk of our bed, we’d listen for the bell, while Oma kept us silent with a raised index finger pressed to her lips. When we finally heard the bell chiming “Ihr Kinderlein kommet …” (Children come …), we stormed out, tore open the living room door, and there the Christmas tree glowed with genuine candles, gifts were piled under the tree, and a tray heaped with Oma’s dainty cookies waited on the coffee table. I still think it borders on magic that my father could wind up the bell and, in the second or two that its mechanism took to engage, cut through the living room and hall into the kitchen and close both doors behind him, without making a sound. Some of that must have been the magic of Christmas.

Christmas was never a particularly religious affair in our house, though. The crèche my parents set by the window was our only nod to what this holiday should have been about. We were not a family to go to church; I was already in my teens when I discovered that other people went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. In fact, even to say I was raised Catholic would be a misnomer. While I did have communion when I was 8, I took it as a dress-up affair and was upset when my parents bought me a white dirndl instead of the fancy dress I wanted. For my confirmation at 13, I did try to get into the spirit. I attended prep classes, came up with sins to repent for during confession, learned the prayers, and tried to feel the Holy Spirit enter my body during the actual ceremony. It didn’t work; I was always conscious of going through the motions, without a spiritual connection.

During my teens, the weeks of Christmas anticipation evaporated too quickly after gifts had been opened; Christmas ended up being about oversleeping and overeating, loading the dishwasher and contemplating the manicure set or keyhole punch lined up among my gifts. The magic was gone and Christmas felt like a letdown: the emptiness left by the torn wrapping paper behind the couch, the crumbs on the empty cookie plate, the forlorn crèche on the windowsill.

After my father died when I was 21, we moved Christmas to Oma’s tiny apartment. My mother only joined for the first one after his death. Without my father’s expectations of family obligations, she felt she did not have to put up with the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law scuffles anymore.

While I still lived in Germany, and Oma was alive, we kids stuck with Christmas at Oma’s. We could not conceive of it otherwise, and Mom did not mind. For her, she said, Christmas had no special meaning, and she did not need Christmas to be with us. It seems she’d only gotten into the holiday spirit for us kids, so why bother now that we were grown up? But once Oma passed away, there was nobody left to host Christmas for the whole family. These days, my brother celebrates with his wife’s family, my sister with her husband and children. Mom is invited to join them but never does. And as for me, I stopped celebrating Christmas more than 20 years ago.

***

I converted to Judaism in 1988. I had fallen in love with a Jew and over the three years that we had dated, I had also fallen for the Jewish way of life. And that year, I converted, got married, and moved to Chicago. While my Orthodox conversion was important for having a Jewish family—we didn’t want to risk any ifs or buts about whether our children would be Jewish—I never would have converted had it not meant something to me. Jewish life is, for me, immensely practical. I did not have to wait for a holy spirit to enter my body; I could do tangible things to feel a spiritual connection, like keep a kosher home. While I do go to synagogue more often than I ever went to church, it is life at home and in the community that defines being a Jew for me.

Our first winter in Chicago marked the first Christmas I did not celebrate. My husband had volunteered for the hospital night shift on Dec. 24. Our student housing building was empty; everyone had gone home for the holidays. Christmas Eve found me alone, stretched out on our neighbors’ couch. We were feeding their cats and thus had free use of their living room and TV. I lay there wrapped in a blanket and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. I had a pot of tea and some of Oma’s cookies, which she sent me from Germany. It was snowing outside, and the building was quiet. I was all by myself. No family, no gifts, no Christkind or St. Nick or Santa Claus.

It was bliss.

That was also the first year I celebrated Hanukkah. While my husband brought traditions with him about how holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah were to be celebrated, Hanukkah was a holiday we had to discover together. His family, traditional but not religious, had barely kindled Hanukkah lights when he was a child.

I never had the urge to recreate the magic of my childhood Christmases for our three children, who are now all in their teens. Maybe because it was so devoid of spiritual content for me that the emptiness it left overpowered any possible nostalgia. Or maybe because the magic of candles, cookies, and gifts can easily be transferred to Hanukkah.

Oma passed away four years after I moved to the States, so her trademark Christmas cookies no longer arrive in their shoebox package, cushioned with tissue paper. I do spend one afternoon with my kids cutting sugar cookie dough, but into the shapes of dreidels, menorahs, and Maccabees. I cherish that each evening of Hanukkah, the five of us gather in the living room to light the candles and spend half an hour watching the flames flicker. It is something we rarely do: gather in the living room, just to be together. The kids send dreidels knocking about on the hardwood floor and wrestle each other for another coin of chocolate gelt, and my husband and I look on happily. Thankfully, that magic of Hanukkah lasts for eight days, not just one night. If one night is too harried, there’s always another one to invoke it again. Thankfully, too, there aren’t weeks of hustle and bustle that lead up to it, except one evening of grating potatoes and frying latkes—those 30 minutes are all there is to it.

Gone then, for me, is the awkwardness of Christmas. What remains is the exhilaration of holiday celebration and the homage to friends and family. What came in its stead are quiet winter days, free of obligations; those come later in the Jewish calendar, when I turn my kitchen and pantry upside down for Passover. But that’s another holiday, and another story.

***

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I am also a convert. I don’t celebrate either holiday. As I keep telling my Christian friends, if I am to bah humbug Xmas, I must be intellectually honest and bah humbug both holidays. Xmas has turned into a monster that devours all that it encounters. Hanukkah is a very minor holiday that has been blown way out of proportion to keep the kids from converting for presents. Rather than trying to fill the void, I embrace the void. Only thing I did for Hanukkah was go to shul for the latkes, mostly because the temple director does the cooking and I like faking heart attacks. Christmas gets the same treatment. Can’t complain about the corruption of either holiday if I am not consistent in my disdain.

disqus_02QKuUJC22 says:

Your story could be my story..Except I’m from the midwest, not Germany. Thank you for telling it so beautifully!

Joan Greenberg says:

I am glad that you found fulfillment in the Jewish faith and traditions. Unfortunately, the Chanukah is better than Christmas rant undermines both traditions.

Thank you for sharing this. I am also a convert to Judaism (over 20 years now). I observe Hanukkah (though I still don’t spell it consistently) and don’t miss Christmas (though I’m a sucker for the movie “A Christmas Story”). I don’t see Hanukkah as filling any kind of void. I love the High Holy Days and Passover. And I have Shabbat, which is an amazing holiday every week. My Christmas tradition now is contributing to Santa’s bag of gifts for my nephews and nieces, and going to Chinese food and a movie with my partner and our friends.

disqus_AUarsDyBVt says:

Wonderful.

fred capio says:

your movie preference and contribution to santa’s bag of gifts shows that you are still infected with the christmas bug

Or that I like the movies I grew up with and I love my Christian nephews and nieces. It wouldn’t bother me if I did get excited about Christmas, but I have to admit that I’m more excited by Shabbat every week than by Christmas (or Hanukkah).

LucidGal says:

I am also a convert, and when my rabbi asked how I would feel about giving up Christmas, my answer was, “Can’t WAIT.” It seemed the perfect excuse to step out of the stressful season of retail frenzy and enforced jollity with people I would never see any other time. As a child, we didn’t have much money, but that was okay. I liked the idea of going out on Christmas Eve, cutting down a little Charlie-Brown-style tree, and stringing popcorn and paper chains to decorate it with. But it was never that way. Christmas usually involved my mom over-compensating to offset my alcoholic and often violent father who didn’t need much excuse to turn a holiday into a disaster. Now that I am Jewish, I’m a bit more tolerant of other people’s sincere attempts to spread Christmas cheer. Where I live is the buckle of the Bible Belt, so people always assume everyone celebrates the same holiday. When someone says, “Merry Christmas,” I reply with “Thanks, you too!” I know where my heart is, and it would accomplish nothing to point out that their party isn’t my party. Sweeping up evergreen needles and tinsel have been replaced with eating donuts and scraping candlewax, and I couldn’t be happier. P.S. I converted to Judaism during Chanukah.

I am a Christian, and I find it sad that you missed out on the true meaning of Christmas as a child. Material things have replaced the Christ Child in the Christmas celebrations of a large portion of our society. I’m glad that you enjoy the Jewish holidays that have been handed down through the centuries and commemorate special events in Jewish history. Since Jesus was Jewish, he celebrated them too.

Natan79 says:

bigot

Bucky in Wisconsin says:

Feh.

Annette Gendler says:

Bryan, thanks for sharing your experience! I agree with you that the High Holy Days and Passover are a much bigger deal, and that we are blessed with Shabbat. What I like about Hanukkah as that it is simple and unpretentious.

Annette Gendler says:

Scott, thanks for sharing your story. My husband, having grown up in Germany where Hanukkah was no big deal, still marvels at the brouhaha that is made over it here in the U.S. Although I must say one year we were in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, and one evening we walked into the hotel lobby where it seemed every guest had lit at chanukiah. It was an amazing and festive sight!

Annette Gendler says:

LucidGal, thanks for sharing your story. How touching that you converted during Chanukah! Each December I wish I could completely step out of the holiday frenzy but four people in my family have birthdays in December, plus I mail gifts to Christian friends, so I still end up planning parties and waiting in line at the post office, just for different reasons…

Annette Gendler says:

Joan, I don’t mean to say Hanukkah is better than Christmas. It just works better for me.

Annette Gendler says:

Thank you for your comment!

Annette Gendler says:

Definitely Jesus celebrated Jewish holidays since he was a Jew. The last supper was most likely a Seder.

LucidGal says:

I didn’t read it that way at all. Something that seems to undermine both is the automatic assumption (prevalent where I live) that there’s only one holiday, and only one religion. Doesn’t make for much understanding.

WOW! Thank you for this story. I personally know some Jews who have to hide their Jewishness or forget they are Jewish to be accepted by their friends. They feel it is just easier for them and they might be right for the present, but in the long run, they truly will no longer know who they are.

I’m a convert, and while I don’t miss Christmas, it’s still awkward. I converted when I was 19, I’m 25 now, and my extended family still gathers for Christmas– it’s tough knowing exactly how to act and what to do. I love the advice someone gave me: treat it like someone else’s birthday party. You might get a party favor (presents) and eat the cake (special foods) and sing Happy Birthday (Christmas carols), but it’s not your day. Don’t feel guilty for celebrating it for other people, because they need you there to make it special.

Truth be told, though, Chanukah’s not my day, either. It’s a nice holiday, but I have plenty of ambivalence about celebrating a military victory of religious extremists. The irony of American Chanukah celebrations– focused as they are on the materialism and fitting into the broader culture that the Maccabees were fighting– kind of gets to me. And frankly, as a singer, Chanukah music just can’t compare to Christmas. I’d never argue that Chanukah is “better” than Christmas (and I know you didn’t, either), and I tell people, “Look, Christmas is better than Chanukah, and it should be! Depending on your denomination, it’s the second- or most important holiday of the year. Chanukah is lovely, and it holds up well against a Christian holiday of equal importance– maybe Valentine’s Day? Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach– these are the Jewish holidays I love.”

AndrewMelville says:

It’s obvious the author knew little about Christmas. It is a beautiful, holy holiday. While we celebrate chanukah as well – it’s hard to summon up much enthusiasm for Christmas knock off to memorialize a bunch of rebels. The candles are nice and the latkas are great – but not a patch on Christmas in any sense.

fred capio says:

לֹא-תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם, וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם: כִּי אָנֹכִי יְהוָה
אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים
וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי.

Batya Medad says:

Thanks for sharing your story. Jewish life is so rich, and celebrating makes it richer. It’s like eating a feast, rather than looking at glossy photos of food.

Everyone “knows” Judaism passes thru the mother, right?

Then why is it that not a single person has even attempted
to answer this

$10,000 Torah Challenge !!!

Can You Prove from the Torah that Judaism Does Indeed Pass
Thru the Mother ?

http://drorbenami987.hubpages.com/hub/Torah-Metaphors-A-10-000-Challange

Annette Gendler says:

Meggie, thanks for sharing your story. I think you got great advice regarding how to deal with celebrating Christmas with your extended family, but I can empathize that it is awkward nevertheless.

Julia in Chicago says:

I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing about your childhood traditions and giving an insight into why Christmas faded away for you. I went overboard this year as a Christian wishing my Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah with cards and sometimes even gifts for the kids. I see now that this was putting an emphasis where there really isn’t one in the Jewish calendar. Some people who are culturally Jewish but not particularly observant have reindeer placemats and exchange gifts around Christmas. They even get trees. I sent my child to a community preschool which was largely Jewish and she begged us to light candles to feel a part of things. We did that and it was very peaceful for us. We even made latkes when she was small because they were good and because I wanted her not to be conversant.
PS Christmas breakfast at our house as a kid was lox and bagels, then off to the movies!

vicentewakk says:

This plan could be basic and purely designed in the event of the group being separated.
http://www.christmaslightsandmore.com/

I always wonder about some “converts” having Jewish ancestry. Many times in history Jews have converted to Christianity, including during the Shoah and Inquisition. In researching my own family history in Germany, I found that many Jews were reclassified during WWII. I wondered about why so many Jews with one of my family names died in Poland, however in Germany not as many. I’m guessing the reclassification is part of the reason. If you google “mischling”, Wikipedia has an article on it. There are other countries that converted many Jews during WWII as well.

Looking forward to the memoir.

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Giving Up Christmas as a Convert to Judaism

I don’t feel nostalgic about Christmas—I’ve discovered the magic of Hanukkah

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